Bellini: Norma; Donizetti: Maria di Rohan

Caramoor Festival

New York, 31 July 2010 4 stars

Angela MeadeThis year at Caramoor, the lovely, verdant summer festival in Westchester, New York at a former estate, the bel canto experience was what could be described as hot and hotter.

I refer not only to the singing, which was on the whole sizzling, but to the temperature inside the Venetian Theatre, an attractive proscenium stage attached to a large tented auditorium. For Bellini’s Norma (10 July), it was uncomfortable for both the audience and the performers; for Donizetti’s Maria di Rohan (24 July), it was more or less unbearable, as the thermometer must have approached 100 degrees Fahrenheit, despite the open sides of the marquee. All types of fans, from lacy Spanish to programme inserts, were employed.

Norma is of course a familiar work, not so Maria di Rohan. Both operas attracted sopranos one wanted to hear in these challenging parts. Angela Meade, the Norma, is one of those superb voices that for some reason or other is curiously neglected by the Metropolitan Opera, usually used as a cover. (This, after being a finalist in the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Auditions, coincidentally regaling the audience with a rendition of 'Casta Diva'.)

Her Caramoor performance was indeed that of a chaste diva, but also a thrilling, powerful, and poignant priestess, with a combination of force and bel canto lyricism that is one of the highlights of conductor Will Crutchfield’s annual summer outings. He manages to fit these taxing roles to exciting singers one normally does not get to hear in them, and advises and coaches them on their embellishments with a commanding sense of history and style.

Playing opposite Ms. Meade was Keri Alkema as Adalgisa, who last appeared locally as Donna Elvira in the revived New York City Opera’s new Don Giovanni. She matched her opponent in love without quite surpassing her—diplomatically enough—and their entrancing duets were beautifully done.

One of the other 'rude Druids', Oroveso, was sung by a Caramoor favourite, baritone Daniel Mobbs, with his usual power and sensitivity. The Pollione, the Roman cause of the opera’s intrigue, was performed by Emmanuel di Villarosa with vigor, if not precisely finesse. He has sung at City Opera. A small chorus was conscientiously used.

Far more exciting was Maria di Rohan, a very late Donizetti (1843, in Vienna) that was well-regarded by Verdi. Its source, Un Duel sous le Cardinal de Richelieu, was performed originally at the Théâtre des Vaudeville in 1832, presumably with songs. Donizetti and librettist Salvatore Cammarano (who also wrote Verdi’s Luisa Miller and Il Trovatore) obviously made it a much more dramatic work, although the first act has the customarily sparkling numbers that Donizetti cannot fail to place in even the darkest plots. The following acts get progressively more serious, intimate, and introspective, with marvellously plaintive arias and duets as one nears the unexpected finale.

Here, as in Norma, is a love triangle that ends nastily, with a former lover of the heroine, Riccardo, competing with her semi-secret husband, Chevreuse. The Duc de Richelieu, the éminence grise whose fall from grace and later restoration propels this story, is never seen. Instead, we have a challenge for a forbidden duel, the duel with the second in place of the challengee, and other complications, including a compromising letter, the foundation of so many well-made Parisian plays.

The severely-pressed Maria was miraculously sung by the cover,  Jennifer Rowley, on two days notice in place of the advertised Takesha Meshé Kizart, who was ill. For one so young and not overly experienced, this was a thrilling chance, which Ms. Rowley seized with velveteen outpourings that delighted the already overheated crowd.

Supporting her, faultlessy, was Scott Bearden, in a remarkably Italianate, large-voiced show of kindness and menace as the deceived husband. The young Brazilian tenor Luciano Botelho made an impulsively ardent impression as the romantic rival, Riccardo, and mezzo-soprano Vanessa Cariddi was delightful in the breeches part of the gallant, Gondi, a role written first for a tenor. Her couplets in Act I were very Parisian, as was a marvellous patriotic chorus march at the end of Act I that celebrated the (supposed) liberation of France from the clutches of Richelieu.

Mr. Crutchfield managed to make every unfamiliar note of this opera telling, right from the overture, a riot of colour and shading (and cello gymnastics) with a 'keep 'em guessing' series of surprise endings. That he led possibly one of the most dramatic of bel canto operas to utter theatrical victory in the face of the kind of wilting heat that would make even Glyndebourne picnic baskets boil over was an amazing, and heartening achievement. I just wish they would move this festival to May!

By Richard Traubner

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